To be published as HC 140-i

House of commons



Environmental Audit Committee

Wildlife Crime

Wednesday 16 May 2012

Ed Mitchell and Adrian Taylor

JANETTE WARD and Dr Paul Horswill

Sergeant Ian Knox and Detective Superintendent Ron Knight

Evidence heard in Public Questions 204 - 303



This is a corrected transcript of evidence taken in public and reported to the House. The transcript has been placed on the internet on the authority of the Committee, and copies have been made available by the Vote Office for the use of Members and others.


The transcript is an approved formal record of these proceedings. It will be printed in due course.


Oral Evidence

Taken before the Environmental Audit Committee

on Wednesday 16 May 2012

Members present:

Martin Caton (Chair)

Peter Aldous

Neil Carmichael

Zac Goldsmith

Mark Lazarowicz

Sheryll Murray

Caroline Nokes

Mr Mark Spencer

Paul Uppal

Simon Wright


Examination of Witnesses

Witnesses: Ed Mitchell, Director of Environment and Business, Environment Agency, and Adrian Taylor, Environment and Business Manager, Fisheries and Biodiversity, Environment Agency, gave evidence.

Q204 Chair: Good afternoon. Welcome to this session of the Environmental Audit Committee. I apologise that we failed to hold our meeting last week where you were to give evidence, and our special appreciation that you managed to turn up to this afternoon session. Can I start by asking a general question about Environment Agency strategy? The agency has a wide range of responsibilities in relation to rivers, flooding and pollution. Where does wildlife crime fit in the Environment Agency’s order of priorities, and what proportion of resources do you dedicate to dealing with wildlife crime?

Ed Mitchell: To put some kind of context around this, our annual spend, for instance, is around £1 billion. Of that, £500 million is spent on environment, as opposed to flood risk and flood risk management. Two-thirds of that, £350 million roughly, in round terms, comes from fees and charges from industry that we regulate. Then the amount we spend on fisheries, which we get through licence fees but also from grant-in-aid from the Government, is £31 million, and then fisheries enforcement, which is the bit that I think falls within your area of interest, is £5.5 million. In one sense, it is a small amount of money. However, it relates to a lot of our other work in and around rivers and in the water environment. To my mind, the money aspect is not a good indicator of its importance in our organisation and its strategy. It is more important. It punches above its weight, if I can put it like that.

Q205 Chair: Have you specific priorities in that wildlife work? Do they change over time and do you co-operate with other agencies to establish those priorities?

Ed Mitchell: Yes. The starting point for everything we do is the legislation or the statutory duties we are given. Those are then further interpreted in Government guidance. That is the framework we operate within. That leads us to have three or four priorities in this area, the first one is protecting and enhancing salmon and sea trout populations. The second one is the social and economic benefits of angling; making sure that the fisheries resource is there for fishermen and women to exploit within sustainable limits and the contribution that then makes to the economy, particularly in rural areas and less well-off areas. The third one is protection of coarse fishery stocks.

Q206 Sheryll Murray: Since the Committee last considered wildlife crime in 2004, we have seen new byelaws introduced covering the illegal landing of salmon and sea trout in particular. Do those byelaws provide the Environment Agency with the legislative tools they need to prosecute those who land fish illegally?

Ed Mitchell: I believe so. Byelaws are great, in that they allow a degree of flexibility that a statutory instrument might not, in terms of open and closed periods or responding to the specific circumstances around a particular river or fishery or fish stock. Perhaps this is the way with all legislative instruments. If you are not careful you end up creating more, and not taking a step back and looking at whether you have taken away the ones that are no longer needed, and we have recognised that. If you look at the full suite of byelaws that we have, they can be a little bit complicated. We are going through an exercise at the moment of looking very carefully at rationalising and simplifying them. But, yes, byelaws are really valuable and important because they give local flexibility.

Q207 Sheryll Murray: How have you measured the impact since the introduction, and do you have any data you could share with us?

Ed Mitchell: I can tell you that the general trend, over the 10 years or eight years since the Committee last looked at this area, is that we have had a steady increase in overall fisheries prosecutions. I will ask Adrian, in a minute, to remind me of the exact figures. We have had an even steeper increase in reports of illegal fisheries, a relatively small proportion of which we are able to substantiate. It is quite difficult to interpret crime statistics in all cases. I think it shows a number of things: one, we are catching more people; two, potentially there is more wildlife crime going on in this area; three, that awareness is significantly higher. That is not just about the byelaws, but our byelaws are part of that. It is quite difficult to unpick the different parts of that equation.

Q208 Sheryll Murray: In its oral evidence to us, the Angling Trust suggested that the penalties for illegal fishing have not kept pace with recent increases in the value of the fish. Using carp as an example, what is your view about that? Are the penalties sufficient, do you think?

Ed Mitchell: There was a very big step change in the penalties that are allowed in the legislation with the introduction of the Marine and Coastal Access Act in 2009. Prior to that, many of the fisheries offences attracted fines in the low thousands-I think up to £5,000 in most cases-and that has been increased to £50,000. So we are not yet seeing those higher fine limits feed through into our statistics about higher fines being levied.

Q209 Sheryll Murray: That is a maximum of £50,000?

Ed Mitchell: Yes.

Q210 Sheryll Murray: That brings it in conjunction with sea angling and the illegal landing of sea-caught fish?

Ed Mitchell: That is right, yes. The actual fine levied depends on the courts and the sentencing guidelines that they are given, and of course that has to fit from the scale of murder through to a parking offence. That aspect is covered by Government policy. Our average fine at the minute is in the low hundreds but, as you rightly say, many fish are worth much more than that. We try and maximise the deterrent effect of fines. I don’t think that people make entirely commercial decisions about, "I’ll have a fish worth 600 quid for a fine of £300". They worry about criminal record, reputation and so on, and we are able to spread that effect by publicising, for instance, the prosecutions that we achieve.

Q211 Sheryll Murray: Could I just have one more question, Chairman? Are the new IFCAs that we saw introduced going to help you because you will be looking at inshore waters as well as the rivers and waterways? Will that assist you in any way, perhaps in working closer with the MMO on enforcement?

Ed Mitchell: I will defer to Adrian in a minute, because he knows more about this than I do. Before IFCAs we had those responsibilities alone. So it is beneficial, in terms of the partnership working. Whether we have any data or evidence about the impact of the IFCAs that are relatively new, I am not sure.

Adrian Taylor: No, we don’t. The main point is us working collaboratively and potentially cross-warranting with the IFCAs.

Q212 Caroline Nokes: I am sticking with illegal fishing, and perhaps because the River Test-sorry, small advert-the finest trout river in the country, runs throughout the length of my constituency, this obviously is a subject of some concern. What I want to try and ascertain from you is whether it is possible to isolate the specific impact of illegal fishing from other factors that might be causing a decline in fish stocks.

Ed Mitchell: The honest answer to that is no. Natural predation in many fish stocks could be up to 40% or 50%. On average, illegal fishing is only a few per cent. However, it is much more important than that in that, if you have a fishery that is already experiencing environmental stress, because the water conditions are not very good or during a drought or any other reason why that fishery is under pressure, then the additional pressure of illegal fishing can be quite significant. The other point is that it is a deterrent thing. If we took our foot off the gas in any way around illegal fishing then that might encourage much more of it, and then it could reach proportions where it had an effect even on fully sustainable fisheries.

Q213 Caroline Nokes: Following on from that, does the Environment Agency perceive an actual threat to the survival of particular species in any location, or instances; if so, what and where?

Ed Mitchell: I am going to have to pass that one to Adrian. I am not aware of anywhere it is at that level of criticality. We have taken one species off the list, so to speak, because it has not been seen since the 1970s. Adrian, I don’t know if you can help on that one.

Adrian Taylor: You are talking about the burbot, because that is extinct. But I think what you are referring to are species like salmon and eel. The impact of illegal fishing, for those two species, is something that is perhaps important locally, but we don’t think there is illegal fishing going on at a scale that threatens them as a species. As Ed has said, there are much bigger impacts, such as habitat, fish passage and those sorts of things.

Ed Mitchell: The very important one I have not mentioned-sorry-is invasive nonnative species, which are a big pressure.

Q214 Caroline Nokes: Yes. I think that is coming up later on. A final question from me. We had evidence from the Angling Trust that there were some particular problems in some locations with immigrants from Eastern Europe, who are ignoring byelaws and are not purchasing rod licences. Are you aware of this as a specific problem and, if so, where is it a particular concern?

Ed Mitchell: We have experienced a significant increase in complaint reports of illegal fishing by, particularly, Eastern Europeans. It is often quite difficult to substantiate these things, because by the time you get somebody there the person may have moved on or whatever. So the number of reports that we have been able to substantiate, as with most of our reported illegal fishing instances, are in the order of 20% of the total reported.

There may well be an issue around understanding of the legal position among visitors, immigrants, whatever, because the rules are very, very different in other parts of Europe. We don’t differentiate our approach to enforcement depending on nationality, but we do have a number of partnership projects-including with the Angling Trust-to raise understanding and awareness. As I recall, they now have somebody employed, for instance, who is a Polish speaker. We produce multi-language leaflets and posters. We are trying to educate and they are part of our targeted activity around illegal fishing as well. In terms of where in particular it is an issue, I know from previous experience that some parts of London are affected, but Adrian may be able to answer that.

Adrian Taylor: Parts of East Anglia, in particular, are a problem. It is worth adding that it was partly in response to the increase in the taking of coarse fish-partly by foreign neighbours-that we brought in new coarse fish removal byelaws a couple of years ago, because in fact, while it was perceived to be illegal that they were taking the fish, it was purely a matter of theft and not a fisheries offence. It is now a fisheries offence.

Q215 Sheryll Murray: Could you tell me how you assess the state of the stocks and the knock-on effect that it has on issuing licences? I know there are areas, particularly in the south-west, where licences have been put on hold or revoked for a period of time while the stocks recover. Fishermen are saying now that the stocks have recovered, but I just wondered how you do it.

Ed Mitchell: That is presumably netting rather than angling?

Sheryll Murray: Yes, netting salmon.

Ed Mitchell: Yes. There is automaticity about a rod licence. You just get one if you ask for it and pay the money. We try to make that as simple and easy for the customer as possible. We assess different sorts of fish stocks. For instance, one of our corporate scorecard targets, which is the deal we have between us and our sponsoring department, is around salmon and sea trout rivers at risk, and there remain a number of salmon and sea trout rivers at risk in this country. Adrian mentioned eels. There is a European-wide-if not global-issue around eel stocks that nobody quite knows the cause of, but we are seeing massively reduced numbers of eels in the main areas they come to in England and Wales.

Where it is netting rather than angling, it is not quite a quota system but we are able to adjust the number of nets we license according to the state of that stock. Some of you may be aware that we have just gone out to consultation on the net limitation order for the north-east of the country, which I think runs right from the Scottish border down to the Humber. We go through a regular process of assessing the stock and making a judgment about how many nets we can license under what conditions, in order to enable the commercial and economic activities to continue while returning the stock to a sustainable level.

Q216 Sheryll Murray: Presumably you are looking at things like maximum sustainable yield and spawning stock biomass, and that sort of thing, when you are looking at the stock?

Ed Mitchell: It is quite complicated, yes. Because these are migratory fish, we look at where they are coming back from, whether they are a mixed fishery or a single-source fishery and so on.

Adrian Taylor: There will be a number of fish required in each river to maintain spawning stock-this is for salmon-and we would monitor that through, say, electric fishing surveys of juveniles, through the catch returns, from the nets and from the anglers, and also through fish counters.

Ed Mitchell: Yes. It is important that there are fish at each stage in the lifecycle and in each year group, not just loads of old ones or loads of young ones, for instance.

Sheryll Murray: Maximum sustainable yield. Thank you very much.

Q217 Mr Spencer: You mentioned the Angling Trust. They are telling us that they now regularly report poaching incidents, but they seem to get passed between yourself and the police, backwards and forwards, and no one seems to want to take responsibility. Can you clarify what your responsibilities are on the riverbank and how you go about enforcing that?

Ed Mitchell: Adrian has already referred to this in the byelaws discussion. There are fisheries offences and there are theft offences. We regulate fisheries offences. The police regulate theft offences under the Theft Act. Historically, if you take coarse fishing, most illegal fishing was about taking fish without the owner’s consent, which is a theft offence and, therefore, prosecutable by the police. On the salmon and sea trout side, many more issues were covered by fisheries offences.

What we have chosen to do-in a potentially slightly risky move for the Environment Agency-is to step into that area to make it clearer for people by ensuring that the byelaws for coarse fisheries make it clear that it is a fisheries offence if you take a fish without the owner’s permission. We can now prosecute on, for instance, still waters for taking coarse fish without the owner’s permission in what would previously have only been within the remit of the police. That appears to be working. We are not getting a huge number, but it appears to have provided much greater clarity to anglers about what they can and cannot do.

Q218 Mr Spencer: The other criticism by the Angling Trust is that you have this network of bailiffs out there, but you have diluted their role by not only getting them to consider fishing but also looking at fly-tipping and other sorts of antisocial behaviour on riverbanks. Do you feel that you have diluted their responsibilities and also lowered the specification of that role of a bailiff?

Ed Mitchell: We have provided a lot of information to the Angling Trust on this. We have something called the England and Wales Fisheries Forum on which they and other interested parties sit, and we have discussed this several times with them. The approach we take to all of our crime work is intelligence-led. There is this permanent balance between visible crime prevention/detection and targeting it and making the best use of the resources. In all of our crime-related work we are becoming much better at using what are-in the police and other places-standard intelligence-led enforcement approaches.

The money that we spend on enforcement is £5.5 million. That pays for-I think it is-130 bailiffs. We have to direct those as best we can to achieve the outcomes we are after, and it is a very difficult balance between visibility and effectiveness. Just to give you some sort of metrics, I think there are 30,000 still-waters fisheries in England and Wales and 65,000 kilometres of river. So even if we had 10 times as many bailiffs they would only visit once a week for an hour or something. You can never cover everything all of the time, which is why I think the intelligence-led targeted approach actually delivers a better outcome. But I understand there is concern around that, and visibility is an issue.

Q219 Mr Spencer: Yes, quite. You obviously have your 130 bailiffs, but there are 3 million rod licences out there, I suppose, and most of those anglers are pretty responsible and very keen to support your aims.

Ed Mitchell: Yes. Absolutely.

Q220 Mr Spencer: What are you doing to work with those 3 million extra pairs of eyes to help that?

Ed Mitchell: We have 1.5 million rod licences. You are absolutely right; in all sorts of ways I regard the angling community as great friends of the environment. They are our eyes and ears out there looking after the water environment in a really, really helpful way. They do a lot of sampling and assessment for us that is incredibly valuable, through something called the Riverfly Partnership. We have a specific pilot going on around voluntary bailiffs with the Angling Trust, where we are seeing whether we can make better use of anglers in an enforcement sense, in terms of deterring illegal fishing. Adrian, maybe you can add something on where that pilot is and what the next steps are?

Adrian Taylor: That pilot is taking place is the south-east. They are looking at it in three phases. The initial phase is about providing us with intelligence and information about illegal fishing and people fishing without licences. If that works, we might move to another stage where they are more actively engaged in enforcement and possibly, as a third stage, even warranted to do fisheries enforcement. That is what we are looking at. One other factor worth bearing in mind is that, over the past four or five years, we have seen a significant increase in the number of reports of illegal fishing. Part of that is reflected in anglers acting better as eyes and ears for us on illegal fishing.

Ed Mitchell: Our fisheries bailiffs are constables. They have powers of arrest. They have quite strong powers. So a relatively steady and thoughtful approach needs to be used in terms of allowing other people access to those powers. There is quite a high training requirement that goes with them.

Q221 Mr Spencer: I suppose you would recognise that communication is quite key; if you make a report as an angler you need to see that action is taken.

Ed Mitchell: Yes. We do routinely try and respond. The problem is that a lot of reports that come in are about an individual or some activity and by the time one of our people gets there they are long gone. But we very much recognise that we need to tell people what we have done and explain how we followed it up and so on, because we want more, not less, of these reports coming in.

Adrian Taylor: It is the nature of fisheries offences that they are transient and if we can’t be there to catch somebody, we still use that information for intelligence to focus our efforts.

Q222 Mr Spencer: Chair, with your permission, I will move on to invasive non-native species. The Centre for Agricultural Biosciences International estimates that the direct cost of invasive non-native species is costing the economy about £1.3 billion. I am talking about things like Himalayan balsam, Japanese knotweed, and, to pick on one, I am told that floating pennywort costs us £25 million year. How much does the agency spend on combating these invasive species?

Ed Mitchell: I am afraid to say, I am not sure that I have a figure on how much we spend specifically on tackling invasive non-natives. We do a lot on it. The ones that we are particularly involved in are, for instance, dikerogammarus villosus-the killer shrimp, of recent press coverage-signal crayfish and a number of others. Invasive species are very difficult. We have some non-native species that are now a fully integrated part of river ecosystems in this country. I think zander is one that was introduced some time ago and now are regarded as a native, even though they are not.

Part of the problem is that if an ecosystem has a sufficient amount of time to assimilate and absorb a newcomer then you get a better outcome. It is the very aggressive, very fast moving invasives that are the real problem for us. They can completely change the ecology of a river. They can completely out-predate the native species, and they can really upset the ecology. Our approach is a mix of preventing-we license fish movement, specifically to avoid the introduction of non-native or invasives and the diseases that go with them-and we try and eradicate where it is possible. That is often only possible in a still water fishery, where you can effectively poison it, because often you are killing everything in there, along with the targets. So it is the nuclear option, and almost impossible to do in a moving river.

We also try and slow down the spread. With something like the killer shrimp, there is no way I have yet come across where you could eradicate these things-which, although their name suggests they are massive, are only about two centimetres long-from the whole of Grafham Water, which appears to be the first sighting in this country. It is a major drinking water supply. You just can’t kill them off, therefore what we are focused on is restricting their movement enormously both out of the reservoir and, for instance, through sailing craft and anglers and all the rest of it. I have to say that people are incredibly co-operative in that effort.

Adrian Taylor: Our enforcement role in relation to non-natives relates only to fish. We do a lot of work collaboratively with others on non-natives, such as Himalayan balsam and those sorts of things, but our regulatory and enforcement role relates only to fish. That is where we put a lot of our enforcement effort in terms of trying to contain or eradicate non-native fish. To give you an example, top mouth gudgeon is one of our top priorities, and we have eradicated them from nine of 34 known sites now.

Q223 Mr Spencer: Just to go back to killer shrimp, which sounds like a Channel 4 late night movie, how alarmed should we be about killer shrimps?

Ed Mitchell: It is now endemic across large parts of Europe. We are just the front of that spread across Europe. Basically, it out-competes native shrimp and native shrimp are an important part of some ecosystems. When it was first found-in fact, I think, by an angler-in Grafham Water, we put in place significant monitoring across the whole of England and Wales to see whether it had spread more widely, but we subsequently found it in a couple of other places only.

The experience, for instance, from the Netherlands is that it can move up to something like 1.5 kilometres a year in terms of range, so it wouldn’t take it all that long to get right across the country. The impact is difficult to judge, but it is sufficient that we are worried about it. The only good news might be that I think we are approaching the environmental limit of its range, so it may not spread here as fast. We were very worried that we would see it spreading very quickly when we first found it. So far that has not proved to be the case, partly because of the measures we and others put in place, but I suspect partly because it might be at its ecological limit.

Q224 Mr Spencer: Can you give us an example of a successful campaign, where there has been an influx of an invasive species and you have managed to control it and eradicate it? What tools do you have?

Ed Mitchell: To talk about top-mouth gudgeon is one of the best, and I think I am right in saying that most of the eradications we have achieved so far have been in still waters.

Adrian Taylor: They have all been in still waters.

Ed Mitchell: Yes. So if it is in a lake and the lake is not the size of Grafham Water you have a chance of eradication. Once it is in a river it is much more difficult. We have an interesting project going on in the River Lark in East Anglia, near Bury St Edmunds, around signal crayfish. One of the things I try and instil in everybody in the Environment Agency is not to give up hope and accept that this is just an inevitability. What is interesting on that particular project is that we and a local angling group and others, have had more success than we expected in restricting the spread of signal crayfish in that particular river. What we are doing is trying to learn from that and see whether there are new tools and techniques that we might use elsewhere. It is a hard grind and it is very, very expensive.

Q225 Mr Spencer: You are saying we shouldn’t give up but at the same time you are saying, "Look, if it’s in an open river then we have no tools available to control this". Therefore, prevention is absolutely vital. What powers are there to prevent this from happening?

Ed Mitchell: This is where the fish licensing legislation comes into play. Anybody who wants to introduce, or stock or move fish needs permission from us, and on occasion that can seem heavy-handed to some people. But the risks are quite high if you mess it up and you get either a disease or an invasive species. So we have done our bit along the principles of better regulation, for instance, to allow a certain degree of earned autonomy, so those that regularly stock from known hatcheries can perhaps have a licence for a year for all their stockings rather than on an individual basis. None the less, we retain that level of control and we prosecute against it fairly regularly. We license something in the region of 8,000 fisheries a year-

Adrian Taylor: It is about that.

Ed Mitchell: And we have in the small hundreds of prosecutions. Is that right? I may be overstating that.

Adrian Taylor: I don’t have a figure to hand.

Mr Spencer: Are the prosecutions against private landowners?

Ed Mitchell: No. For each individual transfer, the person wanting to make the transfer-whatever that is, collecting the fish from somewhere and putting it somewhere else, or moving it from the hatchery into the river-needs a licence. Hopefully, what we are going to move to shortly is a situation where the hatchery is licensed, as well as the individual movements, and the receiving fish lake is licensed. So you get much tighter control over exactly where the fish are going, and I think that will be beneficial.

Q226 Mr Spencer: Finally, just so I understand it in my own mind, if you are the riparian owner and you have Himalayan balsam or Japanese knotweed or one of these invasive plants, are you then going to prosecute the landowner or the person that deposited that plant there?

Ed Mitchell: As Adrian says, our enforcement responsibilities only extend to fish. So we are doing a lot of work on invasives that is about our more general work in the water environment but is not a legal duty issue. You might want to ask Natural England about that aspect of it for land-based invasive species.

Adrian Taylor: I could answer the question if you were asking it about fish-for instance, sturgeon in the water. For preference, we would work with the owner of the water to remove those fish and prosecute as a second-

Q227 Mr Spencer: We have almost gone full circle. My first question was about when you get a report and you pass it from pillar to post between the police and Environment Agency. It feels like we are now doing exactly the same over invasive species, where we are sympathetic that we can do it with fish, but we can’t do it with other species.

Ed Mitchell: I would respond that we have clearly differentiated legal responsibilities, from, for instance, Natural England, around land-based invasive species. I am very willing to be told otherwise, but I don’t think in that particular instance there is much confusion among the riparian owner about where their responsibility lies and what their responsibilities are.

Q228 Mark Lazarowicz: How far is the problem or invasive species, as far as fish is concerned, resulting from illegal importation ultimately or how far is it a natural phenomenon?

Ed Mitchell: It is very difficult to put figures on that. For instance, if we go back to what I should call the invasive shrimp, rather than a killer one-that gives a slightly more balanced picture-we still don’t know exactly how it was introduced to Grafham Water. The leading theory is-as it attaches itself to smooth objects-that it was probably on the hull of a sailboat. There are a lot of international regattas; people coming over from Holland to sail and so on. That is probably how it arrived.

Q229 Mark Lazarowicz: Yes. So we can’t really say that is a wildlife crime issue, can we? I mean it is obviously here of its own accord.

Ed Mitchell: There are elements that are criminal if you deliberately introduce top mouth gudgeon or something, but something like that, no.

Q230 Mark Lazarowicz: But a lot of problems will just be species arriving of their own accord or assisted in some way, but not deliberately introduced.

Ed Mitchell: Yes, like pests, absolutely. Climate change will have an impact on that, as it will on all sorts of other pests and invasive species.

Q231 Mark Lazarowicz: Is that more likely to be the problem rather than illegal importation?

Ed Mitchell: I am not able to tell you the relative percentages, I am afraid.

Q232 Zac Goldsmith: How big a problem are the garden centres and the pond centres, not so much in terms of breaking the law but in the sense that they bring species in legally that then turn out to be very serious problems?

Ed Mitchell: I will defer to Adrian on that one.

Adrian Taylor: You are absolutely right. There are many species of fish, for example, that can be brought in legally and kept and sold through garden centres, often under licence. These are not licensed by the Environment Agency, but the Fish Health Inspectorate licenses the keeping of non-natives in aquarium retail centres and also the import of fish. There is no doubt that some of these species, such as sturgeon, then do find their way into fisheries and into the wild, often because they get too big for the aquariums that they are sold for. That is a problem.

Q233 Zac Goldsmith: That would constitute a crime rather than an accident?

Adrian Taylor: The release of the fish into the wild is where the crime occurs, yes.

Q234 Zac Goldsmith: You mentioned the better regulation process, simplification of the regulatory system, which is a big part of this Government. In relation to regulations around imports of species into pond centres and garden centres, is there a risk that we are going to be opening ourselves up to an increase in these problems going forward?

Ed Mitchell: You are absolutely right; this Government has put a particular emphasis on better regulation. Successive Governments have had a focus on this; it has perhaps taken a higher profile under the current Government, but it has been a fairly long process. The key to it is that it is about risk-based regulation. It is not deregulation. It is about risk-based regulation, and it is about finding the bits of regulation where the burden is disproportionate to the risk posed. That applies right across the board. I am not aware of any specific current moves around invasive non-native species that are in any way deregulatory. We are coming to the water theme of the red tape challenge, which has a crowd-source element where people can suggest bits of legislation they find burdensome. That has started only fairly recently. It is one to keep an eye on, in terms of what demand there is out there and what response there is in terms of the burden of fish-related legislation. But from what I have seen so far I have not seen anything that concerns me.

Q235 Zac Goldsmith: Clearly a lot of these species are getting through the regulatory net that we have in place at the moment, so literally better regulation is needed. I do not know how far you can speak on this issue, given the positions that you have, but does it not make sense, logically, that the holes in the net should be plugged before we see any scale-back in the Government’s general regulatory approach?

Ed Mitchell: To my mind regulation is a balancing act, and it is always a finely balanced balancing act. For every bit of the net that you plug you potentially put somebody out of business, you affect jobs, you affect the economy. So there is a real and very difficult case by case balancing act that has to go on, and I think the guiding principles of making it proportionate to the risk is the only way you can approach it. You could envisage some daft ideas, but I hope they would never get through because people would take a serious look at the implications.

Q236 Zac Goldsmith: In short, do you think that the regulatory system, as it currently stands, and the protection that it provides at the moment, is enough to prevent an escalation of the problems that we are discussing here?

Ed Mitchell: There is one bit of legislation-

Zac Goldsmith: I just have to say that every expert I have spoken to, without exception, who has anything to do with river ecology, ponds and all the rest of it, has told me the exact opposite.

Adrian Taylor: Are you talking there specifically about non-native fish?

Zac Goldsmith: Invasive species, not just fish but also plants in the water ecosystem.

Adrian Taylor: Okay.

Ed Mitchell: Within our remit there is one bit of legislation that we would very much like to see pushed through to completion, which is this bit about enhancing fish movements legislation. It is on the cards but has not quite been landed yet-if that is not an inappropriate phrase. As we have already discussed, there are many other people involved in invasive non-native species. I honestly do not know what the position is with regard, for instance, to Himalayan balsam and things like that. Adrian, are you able to offer anything else on that?

Adrian Taylor: As far as fish are concerned, non-native fish can only be kept in still waters. We don’t allow them in rivers anyway. We wouldn’t allow them to be stocked. They can only be kept under licence in still waters. So I think there is strong regulation there. One of the improvements that we are looking for, through the new live fish regulations, is to be clear about whose responsibility stocking and release of fish is; who is culpable for that if an offence is committed, because it is often not clear at the moment.

Chair: I am afraid we are running out of time. Sheryll Murray is going to come in with one short question. I would be very grateful for a brief response as well.

Q237 Sheryll Murray: We talked about fish getting into the natural environment. What about the boatyards that are popping up all over the river banks? What powers do you have to regulate what they do?

Ed Mitchell: The short answer is it depends whether it is a navigation or not a navigation. If it is a navigation then we, or British Waterways or the Port Authority or the Navigation Authority, have quite strong powers. Where it is not a navigation, I am going to defer to Adrian.

Q238 Sheryll Murray: I am just going back to your previous answer, where you said that some of these species could come in on the hull of a boat or whatever.

Ed Mitchell: Yes. I was talking more about recreational dinghy-type sailing, so sailing clubs and so on.

Adrian Taylor: We work with others collaboratively on a sort of check, clean, dry campaign; those sorts of things. That is the way that we can work there.

Ed Mitchell: Yes.

Adrian Taylor: We do not have any regulatory control over those sort of sites, but we can work with others to advise on biosecurity measures and stop non-natives being spread around accidentally, say, with boats.

Chair: We are going to have to conclude there because we have further panels of witnesses. Thank you very much for the evidence you have submitted to us this afternoon.

Examination of Witnesses

Witnesses: Janette Ward, Director of Regulation, Natural England, and Dr Paul Horswill, Senior Specialist Wildlife Crime Team, Natural England, gave evidence.

Q239 Chair: Good afternoon. Welcome to this session of the Environmental Audit Committee. Our apologies for not being unable to take evidence from you last week as we originally intended, but our gratitude to you for managing to attend today.

Peter Aldous: At Natural England, you have a wide range of conservation responsibilities. Could you explain where wildlife crime sits in your order of priorities and what proportion of your resources is committed to tackling it?

Janette Ward: Yes. Our responsibilities broadly cover sites-that is Sites of Special Scientific Interest, so designated sites-and we have specific and generally complete responsibility for regulation and enforcement in relation to those sites. We also cover species, particularly in relation to the licensing of species. This is where we are licensing activities with protected species that would otherwise be illegal. That is quite an important one to understand because there is a distinction there between what we do and what the police do, which is to cover protected species in a wider context. We also have a number of other responsibilities around regulation, which includes enforcement responsibilities. These are around the Environmental Impact Assessment Regulations, the Heather and Grass Burning Code, injurious weeds and the Environmental Liability Directive, and they are fairly small parts of what we get involved in.

In terms of priority for us, wildlife crime is a very high priority. It is worth saying that clearly, as with other public bodies, we have been through a period of some reduction but have maintained our resource around regulation, including wildlife crime, at the same level. Directly, that equates to about £5.6 million in terms of spending and it is about 120 staff. That is the direct effort. Having said that, because what we do is a combination of enforcement but also compliance-lots of advisory work, lots of guidance, lots of support work-in terms of resources, it is more widely spread across the organisation. We have land management teams who are dealing with sites, monitoring sites or working with landowners, and lots of that is about compliance, so a very high priority for us.

Q240 Peter Aldous: From what you are saying, it is very much entwined with your day-to-day work?

Janette Ward: Absolutely. Yes, it is. We have focused people doing specific things, but they are supporting that bigger piece of land and species management.

Q241 Peter Aldous: What would you see as your actual wildlife crime priorities?

Janette Ward: This falls into two things. There is a priority for us always to respond to incidences, whether it is habitats or whether it is species. That is reactive. We cannot specifically determine what that is going to be, although it tends to keep a fairly similar level. That is always a priority. Otherwise, our priority is linked very much to the UK wildlife crime priorities. We obviously work with the police and the various organisations linked to those networks and support their priorities. The two that are particularly important for us in the current list of priorities are the bats and the raptors. In terms of our strategic work, they figure very highly for us.

Q242 Peter Aldous: You mentioned the police. What other agencies do you work with in assessing these priorities?

Janette Ward: Paul covers this for us.

Dr Horswill: Yes. We sit on the Wildlife Law Enforcement Working Group, which is chaired by the Joint Nature Conservation Committee. In terms of establishing those priorities, we have given evidence to that. That was alongside the police and the Environment Agency, our sister organisation of CCW and SNH in Scotland, as well as the voluntary sector who are also represented on that group.

Q243 Peter Aldous: Do you review these priorities from time to time?

Dr Horswill: The UK’s priorities are reviewed every two years.

Q244 Simon Wright: When and how does Natural England inspect SSSIs in order to check compliance with regulations? Do you have an inspection regime of your own?

Janette Ward: Yes, we do. We have what we call our ‘integrated assessment programme’, which covers all the SSSIs and HLS agreements, and works as a rolling programme of assessments with the frequency of monitoring assessed against specific risk based criteria, depending on the nature of the site, the fragility of the site, any past history, relationships with owners and occupiers and so on. That is the standard operating procedure for us. Because we administer the agri-environment schemes, we also have a link with the RPA who also do inspections that will cover SSSIs. So we liaise with them around the inspections they do. That is also then captured as part of our formal process.

Q245 Simon Wright: How confident are you that you are picking up offending and any significant trends in offending on SSSIs?

Janette Ward: We are fairly confident. I suppose, because what I just said is the formal and, in some ways, the minimum bit. Clearly, because we are a delivery body, we work closely with landowners. We have ongoing relationships. We are working with these people. We are visiting sites. So there is a lot more that goes into it than that, and I guess we also get alerted to things from other organisations, members of the public and so on. I think we are fairly confident, yes.

Q246 Simon Wright: Why are the numbers of prosecutions relating to SSSIs so low? I think there have been just 10 since 2006.

Janette Ward: I will let Paul give you some examples. One of the things that we feel is that although the numbers remain low, they are low across the piece, not just for Natural England; in relation to wildlife crime, they are relatively low, and that is a factor of the difficulty of getting sufficient evidence, sufficient information for a criminal investigation and all that that means, relative to the ability to actually see that something has happened. So the difference between those things is quite significant, and clearly quite a high level of evidence is required.

One of the things we have observed since the last report of this Committee is an improvement in terms of the ability for prosecutions that bring with them quite a high level of fine or whatever, which we have seen as improvement in terms of things being taken rather more seriously when they actually get into court.

Dr Horswill: I think that is right. Wildlife crime is notoriously difficult to detect and then prove cases beyond all reasonable doubt. In addition to that, we classify offences on a four-point scale in the same way as our colleagues at the Environment Agency do: technical, minor, medium or significant. That is taking into account both the environmental impact of the offence as well as other aggravating and mitigating factors. Most offences do come out as technical or minor. The incidents that we deal with are less serious than those that the police are dealing with, where you have more serious organised crime.

I suppose the specific one for us is that if offences are committed then we are often able to negotiate voluntary restoration. It is much more important to make sure that the environment is restored to the position it was in before it was damaged, rather than maybe get any form of punishment.

Q247 Simon Wright: When restoration is ordered or agreed upon, how do you check whether that agreed action is carried out and who conducts such checks?

Dr Horswill: Certainly on SSSIs that would be the land management advisers, and there will be extra visits in addition to the programme of integrated site assessments that Janette outlined earlier. We have not had any non-compliance issues with any of the restoration orders that the courts have served.

Q248 Simon Wright: How do you evidence the effectiveness of the collaborative approach that you take to enforcement issues? If you felt that you were in a position to instigate more prosecutions and impose more penalties, how do you know that that would not have a stronger deterrent effect?

Janette Ward: What we do increasingly is to have a number of panels with various stakeholders, including for enforcement, where we work with other bodies-people like, for example, the RSPB and the Moorland Association-to get their input for their sense of how enforcement is having an effect on the things that we are concerned about. We are testing it increasingly through external relationships like that. Is that what you were getting at? I am not entirely clear that I have answered your question.

Q249 Simon Wright: Yes, I think so. I think that is in the right area. In your evidence, in paragraph 2.2 you talk about the focus on helping your customers to comply. I was intrigued by your use of the terminology "customers". Isn’t there a danger that you might be seen as being a bit too close to the landowners?

Janette Ward: It depends whether you like the word "customers", I guess. Some people do and some people don’t-including our customers. Clearly it is a broad category. In terms of the point you make about getting too close, I think we do have something that we have to manage, which is for an organisation whose priority in many respects is to work well, collaboratively, together with landowners, with farmers, with fishermen and so on and so forth. That clearly is very important, and we believe that that is the way to get the right outcomes for the environment as much as possible.

We are very conscious of understanding that there is almost a Chinese wall type of thing around us also having the ability to take regulatory action and enforce where necessary. To some extent that is why, in part, we have a function that provides some specific input to regulation enforcement, which is separate but not separate from the people who are going out on a regular basis advising on the ground with those sorts of people. It is something that we recognise, and I think we do need to continually think about that and make sure we manage it appropriately. Yes.

Q250 Paul Uppal: I am going to continue on the theme of SSSIs. I appreciate that you probably answered this a little bit in your last answer. I am going to mention a specific site, which probably will not surprise you, which is Walshaw Moor and particularly issues around there. This is the initial question. You dropped the action on 7 March of this year. Could you elaborate on why that specifically happened?

Janette Ward: Walshaw Moor and our work to try and secure agreement with the estate is a long-running thing. It has been happening over a number of years, during which time we have tried continuously to find a way of settling with the estate. That is what we would prefer to do-reach an agreement that is a reasonable agreement that we can work together on. We have continued over that period to try and do that. That had not happened, so we took enforcement action. I suppose one might say, as a result of that, we did get to a place where the estate was willing to come to the table and talk about settlement.

We took the view as a result of what that looked like, in terms of moving us forward with this site and our ability to move from a place where we had a situation that is quite specific to this place, where we moved from a position where we had a completely unregulated situation but with the estate having old consents that allowed that to be the case-so unrestricted ability to do things-to a place where we have a consent agreed with the estate that regulates that situation. That gives us assurance around sets of management regimes for a period of time that will move us forward from a place where we were seeing unregulated activity.

Q251 Paul Uppal: As I understand it, the agreement was a 25-year agreement?

Janette Ward: Yes.

Q252 Paul Uppal: It covered specifically the issue of heather and grass burning, making it an issue in certain areas of the estate. Do you think it would have been better to make it much more comprehensive in covering the whole of the estate, in terms of its environmental impact?

Janette Ward: I am not entirely sure I follow the question. I suppose all I can say is that the-

Q253 Paul Uppal: I think the management agreement you have is ambiguous on the idea of the whole impact environmentally, on the entire estate, whereas it is specific on some bits of the estate in terms of where there should be grass or heather burning.

Janette Ward: What the agreement does, if this is what you are getting at, is specify regimes around moorland management, including burning and other things. It specifies that, but it also has within it-which is fairly normal-an agreement for certain parts of the estate to map areas, in a way which gives more specific definition to parts of the habitat that then will fall within those management regimes.

Q254 Paul Uppal: One of the issues was also around drainage channels. Does the agreement cover that, and did you guys check in terms of whether any unauthorised drainage channels were dug out on the moors? Does the agreement cover it and then was there any checking on that?

Janette Ward: The agreement is taking us into the future, and that is what the agreement is about. As part of the agreement there is a management scheme which is designed to restore drainage on the moor through a procedure that is called moor gripping. What it will do is restore water levels on certain parts on the moor so restoring their wildlife interest.

Q255 Paul Uppal: Obviously in all of these things there is an element of compromise. The guiding principle here is sustainable development. Was that very much the ethos here in terms of taking things forward with the estate as it currently stands?

Janette Ward: I am not sure I would use the word "compromise". As I say, what we have are particular circumstances, and they will be variable and require rather different solutions sometimes. This is a solution that takes us forward, in that what we were specifically thinking about is, for these sites, where we need to get to in the future is a place-which applies to all sites of special scientific interest-where they are in favourable condition. That is a key part of what we do for all of these sites. What we have determined is that this agreement will be a constructive step in the direction towards achieving favourable condition.

Q256 Paul Uppal: Do you see it very much as a model for the future-that these agreements will very much portend where you see things going with other issues-a collaborative approach in this respect?

Janette Ward: I don’t see it as a model in the sense that, as I said, this is an agreement that has come about because of a specific set of circumstances, a specific position that we were in, in terms of our regulatory position. That does not apply elsewhere, or it certainly does not apply widely. It is not a model in that sort of sense. Sorry, I have lost the second bit of your question.

Q257 Paul Uppal: What I am getting at is that this is quite unique, I guess.

Janette Ward: I think it is quite unique, yes.

Paul Uppal: Okay. That is what I am really getting at.

Q258 Peter Aldous: Just before I come to my detailed question, I want to be slightly more holistic for a minute. Our line of questioning might give the impression that your role is very much an ongoing war of attrition with landowners and so on. I just wonder if that is correct, or whether in fact the vast majority of the time you are actually working in partnership with organisations-whether they be wildlife trusts, the RSPB, the National Trust or private landowners-who have the same goals and objectives as you. I want to put in context what the real situation is. Is it what I am describing or is it a war of attrition?

Janette Ward: The real situation is the one that you are describing. If you are making a comparison with the previous question then that is the exception.

Q259 Peter Aldous: That is fine. Thank you. Moving on to the point of detail, from January of this year you have had access under the Environmental Civil Sanctions Order to civil sanctions. I think in your written evidence you describe that as the final piece of the jigsaw. Can you explain why civil sanctions, in your view, are so important in running an effective enforcement regime?

Janette Ward: I will hand this over to Paul because he is the real expert on this. But essentially it is a part of the jigsaw because, previous to that, one had both ends of the spectrum, which is going to full-scale enforcement prosecution or just sending a warning type letter. This gives us something in the middle, which we think will be very useful. Paul, can you say a bit more?

Dr Horswill: Yes. That is quite right. A lot of cases do fall between the gap where a warning letter is too light-touch and a prosecution might be a bit disproportionate. The problem with any warning letter or prosecution is that it does not guarantee you any environmental outcomes, and civil sanctions are designed to achieve environmental outcomes. The outcomes we are most often seeking are restoration of the damage that has occurred, and the restoration notices allow that, and stopping ongoing offending, and the stop notices allow that. So that is where I think the key benefit is. As I mentioned earlier, we do often manage to agree voluntarily environmental restoration, but sometimes that is so informal it can be a little bit uncomfortable and these new enforcement undertakings allow us to enter into agreements to achieve that.

Q260 Peter Aldous: It is relatively early days but how is it going? How many civil sanctions-

Dr Horswill: We haven’t served any yet.

Mr Spencer: You haven’t served any?

Dr Horswill: They can only apply to offences that have been committed from 3 January this year, and so there are investigations ongoing and we are considering them but obviously we can’t-

Q261 Peter Aldous: Does that indicate it is a longer process and you probably need to be reviewing it in a year’s time, or does it indicate that perhaps it was not necessary?

Dr Horswill: No, I think it is a longer process. I know they are called civil sanctions, but you do still have to prove the case beyond all reasonable doubt; it is the criminal burden of proof. We do need to take witness statements from witnesses and interview suspects under caution, so it is a long process to use.

Q262 Caroline Nokes: This may not be an appropriate time to ask you this, and I am about to lurch off on SSSIs and civil sanctions with great enthusiasm. We heard from the Environment Agency earlier that they do not have the appropriate enforcement powers to deal with invasion by plant species, and they pointed a finger in your direction when it came to tackling things like Himalayan balsam. Could you give me some indication as to whether you do have the civil enforcement powers to deal with that, whether that comes under the sanctions that you can use from January of this year and whether you will be using them?

Dr Horswill: Let us get this one right. The police are responsible for investigating breaches of section 14 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act and the CPS are responsible for prosecuting. Let us put the record straight on that one. So, no, we do not have many enforcement powers, but obviously that will be a key part of our agri-environment funding and other grant schemes on getting invasive species, such as Himalayan balsam, under control on rivers, for example.

Janette Ward: What we do is more management support work to try and address these things. We have been involved in projects and funding for Himalayan Balsam control. As Paul said, there are agri-environment schemes we use to help with this. Another recent example is controlling the spread of Phytophthora, which is a disease of trees that has been an increasing problem across the country; we are working with the Forestry Commission in particular because of its link to woodlands and forestry.

Q263 Zac Goldsmith: Moving on to a different issue, given the wide range of legislation under which you issue species licences-I have the number here but I can’t see it, apologies-as an organisation, do you favour the consolidation of current legislation; for example, the creation of a single Wildlife Act? Is that something that you would back?

Janette Ward: Yes. Broadly we do very much favour it, and we are working very closely with the Law Commission. We had one of our board meetings/workshops with external partners involving the Law Commission at an early stage to get involved. The answer is, yes, consolidation, simplification, so on and so forth. We also have some specific areas that we would like to see addressed through this. Paul, I think you can enlarge on those a bit.

Dr Horswill: Yes. For some offences, at the minute, there is no specific offence of breaching our licence conditions particularly under the Wildlife and Countryside Act, where there is in the other Acts. So that is one thing we would like to be addressed. That is an inconsistency. Similarly, there are no civil sanctions available under the habitats regulations for breaches of European protected species legislation. Again, there is for a lot of the other Acts. So it is very inconsistent at the minute. We want to see that addressed.

Q264 Zac Goldsmith: What are the prospects of this kind of consolidation happening? What is the political appetite for a move in that direction? Probably you should be asking us.

Janette Ward: Can I comment on that? We are clearly working very closely with Defra and other partners on this. Personally I get no sense, other than that there is a view that this will be a useful thing to do and people are up for it.

Q265 Zac Goldsmith: What are the main arguments against? What is the downside of consolidating the vast range of bits and pieces of legislation that exist at the moment?

Dr Horswill: I cannot see that there are any downsides. It is a huge piece of work for the Law Commission. There is no doubt about that. They will have to invest a lot of resources in it and so will we and Defra, but it has to be worth it.

Q266 Zac Goldsmith: You do not see any downsides at all?

Janette Ward: Not from what we can see so far. Like all things, the devil is in the detail, I guess. With simplification, when one looks at the detail, there may be things that do not look so good, but at this stage it does not feel like that.

Q267 Zac Goldsmith: On the licences themselves, can you describe what factors you take into account when you issue them? What is the process? How does it work?

Dr Horswill: There are five factors that are taken into account for every licence that is given. The first one is whether there is a genuine problem to resolve. So if you want some examples, you could take the example of a huge number of gulls on an airfield. Are they causing an airstrike issue? Have there been cases where there have been near misses or pilots have had to take evasive action? The second one is whether there are alternatives to killing the species-are there ways of scaring those birds away, for example, by the use of pyrotechnics? The third and the fourth are a bit of a balancing act. You want the licensing action to contribute to resolving the problem. Obviously there are a certain number of gulls that would need to be culled in that area but, similarly, you do not want to be disproportionate. So we would want it to be restricted to that airfield only and not to anywhere in the wider environment if possible. Then finally, the licensed action cannot have an adverse effect on the favourable conservation status of that species in its natural range.

Q268 Zac Goldsmith: I see that you issued 10,000 last year. Is that right?

Dr Horswill: Yes. That is correct.

Q269 Zac Goldsmith: What would be the most mundane example of that? You mentioned runways and so on.

Dr Horswill: For example, a mundane one might be bird-ringers-people who just want to check nest boxes of birds or, if they are monitoring populations, capturing birds and putting rings on their legs.

Q270 Zac Goldsmith: Do you want to answer that?

Janette Ward: Just to qualify that, it does look like a big number but, yes, it does break down into European protected species, normal species and then a lot of scientific work as well.

Q271 Zac Goldsmith: I am going to move on again, as I am conscious of time. The National Gamekeepers Association told us that buzzards are now so numerous "that they are becoming a serious problem and Natural England is having to look at a licensed control system as a route to saving wildlife." Is that the way you see it? Clearly not. Can you explain why not?

Janette Ward: It is not the way we see it, and certainly not the sort of language which is to-what is it?-"to control wildlife" or to-

Zac Goldsmith: "To look at a licensed control system as a route to saving wildlife." That is the quote.

Janette Ward: Yes. First of all, we see it as a great success in many respects, that buzzards and some other raptors have been recovering, after a time in the past when clearly their populations plummeted and were very low-pesticides, persecution and so on. The buzzard recovery story is a great one. They are across the country more widely; people see them and so on. Although, in truth, there are still not the numbers that there were historically, but that is a great, great story. I think it is important for us to think of that. We have had a very limited number of licence applications for control of individual buzzards linked to pheasant release situations-shoots and pheasant release pens. I think it is four.

Q272 Zac Goldsmith: Applications. Have you granted any?

Janette Ward: We haven’t granted any of those. That then plays on what Paul was saying about going through those criteria. We haven’t seen those criteria met.

Q273 Zac Goldsmith: Basically you flatly reject the notion that they are too numerous at the moment and that they are causing problems.

Janette Ward: Yes. We do not think they are too numerous. There may be something that we need to look at and think about as we go into the future, where we may get some specific circumstances with specific problems. We are working with Defra who have set up a working group-and this is a group with the Moorland Association, with the National Gamekeepers Organisation, ourselves, RSPB-to have a look at what that looks like, and particularly to look at how we can ensure a consistent approach, increasing research on the position including the use of other deterrent mechanisms. That is always our first route.

Q274 Zac Goldsmith: I want to check I heard you right. You began by saying that they are not back to the numbers that they ought to have reached, but just now-I don’t know whether you meant to say it-you said they are too numerous. You are agreeing with me.

Janette Ward: Oh did I? No, sorry.

Zac Goldsmith: You did say that.

Janette Ward: Did I say that? Okay. No. I don’t think they are too numerous.

Zac Goldsmith: You are repeating what I was-

Janette Ward: I don’t think they are too numerous. What I do think is that we have to acknowledge that in the future there may be particular circumstances where individual buzzards become problematic, and we would have to think about that within the context of the current licensing regime.

Q275 Zac Goldsmith: I have one last question that is way off-piste. It is an issue that has not come up yet in this entire inquiry, but I am compelled to ask you. I think you are the right people to ask about wild boar. Their numbers have grown, as you know. They have reached a point where it is accepted they are here for good. There are populations all over England. They are not going anywhere. But because they have not been formally recognised, I suppose, or they do not have a formal status, there is no closed season, there is no hunting season, and the effect is that it is still legal to shoot a sow with very young-are they called piglets?-wild boar piglets. I think they are. There are none in Richmond Park, but it is an amazingly concerning issue to my constituents and I share that concern. Is there any likelihood that your remit will grow to cover wild boar? After all they were here only 400 years ago.

Dr Horswill: It is possible. Deer are a problem in woodlands. Maybe wild boar will get to that stage.

Zac Goldsmith: But deer are indigenous, wild boar because-

Janette Ward: Not all deer.

Zac Goldsmith: Okay, no, that is true.

Janette Ward: There are a lot of non-introduced deer that are similar.

Q276 Zac Goldsmith: But do you see any merit in pursuing that?

Janette Ward: I am not sure.

Dr Horswill: It is logical to have a closed and an open season for the shooting of any animal.

Janette Ward: Yes.

Q277 Zac Goldsmith: You think it does make sense? Is that something that you would support?

Dr Horswill: We would be happy to look into it further.

Zac Goldsmith: Okay, we will carry that over to another time.

Janette Ward: We will take it away and have a think about it.

Zac Goldsmith: All right. I am going to stop there. Thank you.

Chair: If there are no further questions to these witnesses, I thank them very much for the evidence they have given us this afternoon.

Examination of Witnesses

Witnesses: Sergeant Ian Knox, Metropolitan Police Service, Wildlife Crime Unit, and Detective Superintendent Ron Knight, Metropolitan Police Service, Wildlife Crime Unit, gave evidence.

Q278 Chair: Good afternoon. Welcome to this session of the Environmental Audit Committee inquiry into Wildlife Crime. The first question is from Mark Lazarowicz.

Mark Lazarowicz: Good afternoon. I understand that yours is the only force-level Wildlife Crime Unit, at least in England and Wales. Is the model really defined very much by the special circumstances in London, or is it one which could be taken by police forces elsewhere in the country?

Detective Superintendent Knight: The MPS model works for London and it is a matter for each force whether they identify the same issues that we identify and follow that model, and whether they choose to make that investment. It is probably more a case for the Metropolitan Police that we recognise if we did not invest these resources, then it would be extremely difficult for us to co-ordinate activity and deal with things at a strategic and tactical level. Our unit works with our partners and with our Wildlife Crime Officers across London. There is one in almost every borough in London, and we co-ordinate that activity. I think if we didn’t have the model that we have, we would not be able to do that. Whether that would fit with other force areas is probably a matter for them.

In terms of our unit, I have been a detective for quite a long time now, nearly 30 years, and it is a very specialised area of business. We recognise that it is an area of specialism and we need to maintain that specialism to be able to properly identify and address wildlife crime.

Q279 Mark Lazarowicz: How would the focus of your activities be divided between the different types of areas of interest? For example, how far would you have a concern particularly on international trafficking, how far on domestic trafficking and how far on other wildlife crime within the London area? Can you give us an idea of what kind of areas you focus on, and how your interest is broken down?

Detective Superintendent Knight: We have a local level with our Borough Wildlife Crime Officers. They are dealing with it at the level of local issues, and we support them in relation to that. In terms of the cross-border issues and the national and international picture, that is more where the Wildlife Crime Unit comes in. We do liaise with international partners and have worked with international partners on both overt and covert investigations. Ian, do you have anything to add?

Sergeant Knox: Broadly, the remit of the unit can be split into two areas: indigenous wildlife crime and exotic endangered species. Over and above that, we have the remit to enforce the laws that protect all wildlife within London, which is covered by both areas. We also have the remit to implement initiatives to prevent wildlife crime. So we do have a very broad remit within London.

Q280 Mark Lazarowicz: By "indigenous wildlife crime", are we talking more about cruelty to animals and some of the issues we have been hearing about-species being transported illegally and international crime as well? It speaks for itself, really.

Sergeant Knox: Indeed. Not so much cruelty issues. But the Wild Mammals (Protection) Act, yes, we cover that and the Wildlife and Countryside Act. By indigenous wildlife crime I mean crimes affecting those animals that are native to the UK and Europe and protected by that type of legislation. Largely the endangered species trades, of course, are those species that are protected by the CITES, the Convention on the International Trade of Endangered Species. We use the Control of Trade in Endangered Species within the UK to implement that convention.

Q281 Mark Lazarowicz: During our inquiry we have heard different views as to how far London is indeed a world centre for wildlife crime in general and, in particular, the trafficking of endangered species. What is your assessment of London’s role in that, both at a European level and also globally?

Sergeant Knox: That is difficult for us to quantify, for a couple of reasons. The method for recording wildlife crime is not exact. We rely on Home Office codes for counting and statistical purposes, but there are not many Home Office codes for wildlife crime. For instance, when we are talking about the endangered species trade I think there is only one specific code for one offence within that regulation. The rest are found within a general code. When we talk about recording crime for summary offences, for instance, there are a number of Home Office codes for that, but our recording systems do not recognise those codes. They recognise them as a general group, but we have to sort through many different types of offences to draw that information out. That is one area where we find it difficult to quantify the level of crime within London or within the UK, but I would point out that we do have other indicators; for instance, Customs and Excise. They do record their seizures, and for the year 2010-2011 they seized over 42,000 items coming into the UK.

We have other indicators within London. For instance, one of the largest seizures ever of rhino horn was made in South Kensington. Admittedly, that was in the late 1990s. Additionally we had the world’s largest seizure at the time of shahtoosh, which is the wool of the Tibetan antelope. There are indicators that it is a significant problem within London, and I know that similar seizures have been made by various forces in the UK.

Q282 Mark Lazarowicz: I understand that your unit has had funding from the World Society for the Protection of Animals. Has this had any difficulties as far as the operation is concerned? How far do they set the priorities for the unit?

Detective Superintendent Knight: We welcome our partnership with WSPA. They have provided grant funding. That has been able to provide the salaries for two members of staff, an additional police officer for investigation enforcement and a member of police staff, in terms of research and analysis to support our work going forward. The grant is in pursuance of the Police Act and signed off by the Metropolitan Police Authority, and there is a review process in place in relation to that. The funding is £100,000 a year. I believe that equates to a pound for every UK member of WSPA. The partnership works very well and it has allowed us to recruit staff, which will give us better enforcement opportunities, more opportunities around prevention initiatives, and also better opportunities around intelligence collection and intelligence development around individuals, or groups of individuals, that are involved in wildlife crime. It is a welcome partnership. They do not have direct control over the resources. We are working together towards a common goal, and there is no friction as such in relation to our relationship with WSPA. The resources remain under the auspices of the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police.

Q283 Peter Aldous: Can I pursue this line a bit further? You say you are happy with it. You do not feel it in any way compromises police operations? Perhaps, if you were concerned that the level of the funding might be under review, you might be looking to get results that otherwise would not be the case. You are entirely happy with it from an operational point of view?

Detective Superintendent Knight: Yes, I am. If we did not have the funding from WSPA, we would still have the Wildlife Crime Unit and we would still engage in the activity we engage in now. The funding has just given us additional resources and more opportunity to tackle more around wildlife crime. We would still function. We just would not be able to function to that level, to that extent.

Q284 Peter Aldous: You are happy there are sufficient safeguards in place to ensure that it does not-

Detective Superintendent Knight: Yes. There are review processes in place. The Metropolitan Police Authority has some oversight around that. It is grant-funded. It is all pursuant to the Police Act, so everything has been bolted down. In terms of our working relationship with WSPA, they do not have any direct control over the unit or the staff. They do not have any control over the decision-making. That rests with me and my team. It is early days, I suppose, because the funding was only signed off in October last year, and there are targets within the funding, as part of the funding agreement, but at the moment there has been no friction and no challenges, shall we say, and certainly no undermining of our authority in the police to enforce.

Q285 Peter Aldous: Moving on, do you think wildlife crime should be included within the remit of the National Crime Agency?

Sergeant Knox: We do not really know what the National Crime Agency’s remit is going to be yet. My guess is that they will be looking at the top end of crime, the more serious and organised crime. What we have to realise is that the majority of wildlife crime is at what we would call level one. I would guess that the National Crime Agency will not be looking at that. The majority of wildlife crime is at that level, and that is the level of crime that impacts most on people, in fact. Local communities and individuals care about the wildlife that lives with them in their local area. It affects their quality of life. When they see wildlife crime at that level going unchecked it makes them feel less safe. That is an important area of crime that we must not lose sight of, and my fear is that if wildlife crime was to go into the National Crime Agency, that aspect of it may be lost.

Detective Superintendent Knight: I agree with Ian. The National Wildlife Crime Unit does not just deal with the serious and organised crime aspects. It would be a neat fit if it moved over into the National Crime Agency, if that became one of their responsibilities, and it might help resolve some of the funding issues. But the general feeling of those involved in wildlife crime would be that it could be lost within other crime, and would be competing in the same forum against other organised crime. Would it still get the same service? The general feeling from people who are working within wildlife crime is that the National Wildlife Crime Unit is probably better as a stand-alone, but we need proper mechanisms in place to be able to task and co-ordinate against organised crime. Organised crime does exist, and of the 7,200 organised crime groups currently mapped in England and Wales, some of them see wildlife and wildlife products as a commodity that they can exploit and market. I am not quite sure that the National Crime Agency, if it had the responsibility, would be able to service wildlife crime. It may get watered down with other crime taking priority.

Q286 Peter Aldous: The majority of wildlife crime you are involved with does not involve organised criminal gangs?

Detective Superintendent Knight: The majority does not, no. The majority is at a local level, or what we call cross-border, whereby we have people who offend, say, in one part of London, who are offending in another part of London. There are occasions where that goes outside the London area and into the different regions, and we liaise with those regions for those cross-border issues. There are some occasions when we liaise, either nationally or internationally, particularly around importation of ivory and those types of commodities. Intelligence suggests that organised crime groups are seeing wildlife and wildlife products as a commodity, and that is an emerging trend, but it is a commodity and it is a commodity like drugs or firearms or trafficking. Targeting that group, you are targeting them through wildlife crime, but we could probably target them for another commodity and we are probably more likely to get the resources to target them through another commodity. Looking at organised crime and wildlife, there may be better opportunities with other crime types that will impact and have a good impact on the wildlife crime issues.

Q287 Simon Wright: I would like to ask a couple of questions that follow from Sergeant Knox’s comments about data recording. Could you elaborate on the extent to which you feel we have an accurate picture of the nature and scale of wildlife crime in the UK?

Sergeant Knox: There are a number of indicators. We can look at reported incidents of wildlife crime or we can look at recorded intelligence obtained in relation to wildlife crime. We have quite good records of those. It is where we are looking at the extent of wildlife crime in terms of recorded offences that it becomes more difficult. As far as the National Unit is concerned, there has been a year-on-year increase since they have been making records-since their establishment. I have the figures for 2008-10, and the increase is quite marked. We can see from our own figures in the Metropolitan Police that we have had a year-on-year increase in both incidents recorded and intelligence submitted.

Q288 Simon Wright: What scale of increase are you talking about?

Sergeant Knox: For instance, we heard earlier that the National Unit publishes a strategic assessment every two years. I have the figures for 2008. The incidents recorded there were 2,000. This is across the country. In 2010, it was 9,500-plus, so a marked increase. For the Metropolitan Police, for instance in 2009 we had 148 incidents; in 2010 we had 904. This may well have been brought about by the National Standard for Incident Recording that was adopted nationally. In 2011 that went up again to 1,990 incidents reported. So the more we look, the more we find. As officers have been looking at wildlife crime-myself since the mid-1990s-and as the systems have become more professional, so our ability to detect and record has improved.

Detective Superintendent Knight: I think the picture is incomplete. Some crimes are easier for us for recognise. If your car is broken into, it is very easy; you have had your car broken into, it’s either damaged or you have had property stolen. It is difficult for police officers and members of the public to identify that a crime has been committed that they can or should report for investigation. Part of the work that we are doing with partners is educating people to say, "This is a crime and there is something you can do about it. If you report that crime, then we get a better opportunity to try and identify the people who have committed that crime and bring enforcement action, implement crime prevention initiatives, or identify whether there are any trends or series: is this a one-off or is this part of a series of crimes that are happening elsewhere?" If we don’t have that data, we can’t analyse the data and we can’t identify those trends and series.

It is partly our own recording practices, education from within and education from without, as shown in the year-on-year increase. But I still think that there is under-reporting and the picture is incomplete. That is probably not just a picture for London; that is probably the national picture.

Q289 Simon Wright: In your written evidence you say, "Separate Home Office recording codes for indictable and non-indictable wildlife crimes would significantly improve our knowledge of the scale of this issue". Would there be a significant bureaucratic cost in giving the few notifiable wildlife crimes a specific Home Office code?

Detective Superintendent Knight: I can probably do a joint answer on that. I think the answer is, yes, there would be. That is an easy fix. If we can code it then we can count it. If we can find it we can analyse it, and then we can do something with that data. But every force area has a different crime recording system, and every one of those forces would have to take changes in Home Office coding into consideration, and whether they could update their systems, whether their systems were compatible with the new codes. There are always potential costs in these things. For the Metropolitan Police’s position, our crime recording system has somewhere between 900,000 and 1 million crimes a year that go on to the system, and if there were any changes to that system there is a cost implication. On the one hand, it would be nice to see that and it would be very welcome, but there are probably risks or barriers to that in terms of cost. I would not like to guess what they would be.

Q290 Simon Wright: Are you aware of any work that has been done on trying to quantify the costs that might result?

Detective Superintendent Knight: We have engaged with our Directorate of Information to see whether there are better ways that we can capture the data. Without having to resort to changes in terms of Home Office codes, are there any simple things that we can do in-house that are cost free or cost neutral, where we can better identify the crime and crime types and then be able to analyse that data? We are in negotiation with our Department of Information at the moment. We are competing with others around similar ground, so I would say it is very much work in progress.

Q291 Mark Lazarowicz: I know time is tight, so I just have one question in two bits about legislation. First of all, you give some examples in your written evidence of how you think wildlife crime legislation is not fit for purpose. To be clear on one particular point, can you confirm that it is the case that a vet rather than a horticulturalist is required to attend when the police take samples of dead plants under the current regulations?

Sergeant Knox: Under the regulations it is a vet that needs to be present if the owner does not allow a sample to be taken, or assist to-

Q292 Mark Lazarowicz: With plants it has to be a vet?

Sergeant Knox: Yes. I had a case where I was looking at importation of furniture made from Brazilian rosewood, and it was considered that I would need a vet to assist there. Fortunately, it was not necessary.

Q293 Mark Lazarowicz: I hope it was not alive, anyway. Again, on legislation, you propose empowering the police to be able to request evidence of lawful importation, which currently the UK Border Agency apparently can do, but you cannot. How would that improve enforcement?

Sergeant Knox: It would streamline how we deal with offences. It would make the investigation far more efficient. The power exists. It just has not been given to police.

Q294 Mark Lazarowicz: Does that mean you have to bring someone from the UK Border Agency along with you sometimes?

Sergeant Knox: Yes. I can give an example where I seized a polar bear skin, as opposed to a polar bear. That was controlled by importation regulations. I could not disprove the reason I was given for the importation, but I was highly suspicious of it, and I had to ask Customs and Excise whether they would feel it justified for them to make the seizure for me to continue the investigation. Fortunately they did, and we found that it had been imported not 25 years ago but two years ago, and we were able to complete the investigation successfully. Had there been time restrictions, that negotiation with Customs and Excise-as they were then-may have meant that the offence could not have been investigated properly.

Detective Superintendent Knight: Indeed, if they had made the opposite decision, the crime would have remained unsolved and that individual would not have been brought to book.

Mark Lazarowicz: It might be subject to pressures upon their time for other purposes as well, yes. Okay, that is fine.

Q295 Peter Aldous: There has been some concern expressed by the legal exotic pet trade that they have been punished for what they would regard as paperwork offences, relating to CITES protected species. Is this a view that you have heard before and have sympathy with?

Sergeant Knox: I think that there are paperwork offences, but what we must look at is that the Convention on the International Trade of Endangered Species is a global convention. Yes, it is to support legal trade but it is mainly to ensure that wild populations of endangered species are sustained-that they are maintained. To do that, we have a global licensing system. That is the backbone of the convention, so it has to be robustly monitored and enforced. Quite frankly, if people are going into business legitimately, part of their business is to understand the regulations that control it.

Q296 Peter Aldous: Do you think these regulations are fair and reasonable at the moment?

Sergeant Knox: Yes, I do. I think there are improvements that can be made. The improvements I would like to see are, for instance, on the certificate that allows the sale of any given endangered species. We know it as an article 10. There are two. One is transaction-specific, which means it covers one sale, one transaction, or it can be specimen-specific, which effectively means it is a logbook for that animal. Whatever the specimen is, it has to be uniquely marked. That unique mark will be on the certificate, and it goes with the specimen throughout its life. Once it goes past the first transaction, it is lost to the system. There is no requirement for the new owner to inform the management authority that they are the new owner, unlike the car registration scheme, where of course you have to inform DVLA. What that means is that we no longer know where that specimen is and who has it, and I can see that as an avenue for fraud offences. It is an EU regulation and the EU has to agree for that change to be made, but I think that is something we should look at carefully.

Q297 Peter Aldous: Has there been any work done, or do you think there should be any work done, to help the exotic pet trade understand and be able to meet the requirements of the regulations so that we are not ending up with a lot of prosecutions?

Sergeant Knox: There is very comprehensive advice on the Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratory Agency website. We have a link to that website from our own Operation Charm website. Operation Charm is the Met Police initiative against the illegal endangered species trade. Equally, the pet trade are members of the PAW group-the Partnership for Action against Wildlife Crime-and there is an open forum there for these matters to be discussed, and they are. But I think, yes, there is very reasonable advice and guidance available.

Q298 Peter Aldous: Do you think it might improve the situation, and would CITES be more effective, if it consisted of a positive list of species that could be traded, rather than a negative list of species that cannot be traded?

Sergeant Knox: I think it amounts to the same thing, because if you have a list of animals that can be traded, that would mean that it will not include those that cannot, and as long as there are no exceptions to those that cannot, it amounts to the same thing. The difference being that if you had that positive list, there are between 9,000 and 10,000 species of birds, goodness knows how many fish, mammals, insects, reptiles and so on-not to mention plants-and the list would be enormous.

Q299 Peter Aldous: The positive list would be longer than the negative list.

Sergeant Knox: Yes. The problem is the exceptions that are allowed to the trading of endangered species that are on the list. That is what causes the problem. I do not see any way around that, because the idea of CITES is to allow sustainable trade, so there have to be exceptions. I do not think a positive list will take us any further forward.

Q300 Peter Aldous: Is there any evidence, do you feel, that the legal exotic pet trade is used as a cover for illegal wildlife traffickers?

Sergeant Knox: Inevitably, wherever you have a legal trade, it will conceal-I have to be careful here. Often where there is a legal trade-I mean that generally, not individuals-that will cover illegal trade in some cases. I don’t think there is any doubt about that.

Q301 Peter Aldous: Is it a significant proportion?

Detective Superintendent Knight: I do not think we have significant intelligence now that would suggest that is the case, but if you look at other areas of business-for example, firearms dealers-registered firearms dealers are regulated and things like that, but sometimes you do get a rogue registered firearms dealer.

Q302 Peter Aldous: Would it be fair to say it was the odd rogue exotic pet trader?

Detective Superintendent Knight: I think it would be an exception rather than the norm, yes.

Q303 Peter Aldous: CITES only covers international trade. In your experience, how significant is the internal UK illegal wildlife trade?

Sergeant Knox: I would go back to my original answer to Mr Wright. We know that Customs stopped 42,000 items coming into the country last year. If you look at that in terms of the drugs trade, we do not stop all the drugs that are coming into the country. The same must be true of the endangered species trade. I would say that there are fewer resources committed to monitoring that area of importation than other forms of contraband, so 42,000 items in one year is significant. In London, as I have said, we had the world’s largest seizure of rhino horn. We had at one time the world’s largest seizure of shahtoosh. We have had many seizures of worked ivory. In the unit we have seized seven tigers-not live ones of course. I think there is a significant trade in the UK.

Over and above that, there are two sides to this illegal trade. Of course you have the supply end in places like Asia, Africa-wherever the endangered species range state is-and the demand. Every signatory of CITES has a responsibility to attack that end of the trade, because if we reduce the demand then we automatically have an effect in the areas where these animals originate. I would say that it is probably of equal importance for us to engage in public awareness and crime prevention initiatives to reduce this demand, as it is to carry out enforcement action.

On many occasions where we have taken enforcement action, yes, it has had an effect, but where we have gone into public awareness and working with traders-particularly, I would say, around the traditional Chinese medicine market-we have had a significant effect. In London, we do not often find traditional medicine practitioners or traders with medicinal products that contain endangered species of animals. It has been very much reduced, and I would say a lot of that was due to the public awareness that we embarked upon with our partners and some of the NGOs, and I think that is definitely an area that we should be very mindful of and concentrate on.

Chair: Members have no further questions. Thank you very much for the evidence you have given us this afternoon. That brings our session to an end.

Prepared 14th June 2012